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Single definition of American Woman proves elusive at Costume Institute

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010; E01

NEW YORK

The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has tackled complicated cultural conceits, from the save-the- universe fantasies of superheroes to the glamorous mythology surrounding models. But there are few topics as challenging and fascinating as trying to understand the American woman through her style of dress.

The impulse to put people into neat categories is irresistible, and the desire to explain what it means to be American -- beyond citizenship -- has become a hot topic. But defining an American identity through the vernacular of style is a daunting goal at a time when women as diverse as first lady Michelle Obama and performance artist Lady Gaga are celebrated by the media in almost equal measure. It seems a thankless project, too, destined to draw accusations of reductive analysis.

What benefit is there in hashing out a national style when economies and cultures interact in a global marketplace? Japanese women, credit cards in hand, storm the doors of French companies such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton; French women shop at the Gap; and American women rely on an Italian named Giorgio Armani for their power-dressing needs.

So from the outset, one feels pangs of sympathy for curator Andrew Bolton and no small amount of skepticism about his exhibition, "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity," which runs through Aug. 15. What has he got himself into?

The greatest strength of the exhibition lies in its narrow timeline. Bolton looks at the period between 1890 and 1940 -- from the moment American women began to break away from European style to when the American film industry began to define glamour as an aesthetic category on an international scale. Bolton is also aided by the extraordinary set designs of Hollywood's Nathan Crowley, whose work provides the garments with context and drama. His painted backdrops of lavish ballrooms, bucolic seasides and Tiffany-inspired stained-glass windows hint at the kind of lives these women led.

Bolton makes a convincing argument for sifting through the styles of the past: They provide a history of how dramatically the culture has changed and where it may be headed. The past is brought to life through the Heiress, the Gibson Girl, the Bohemian, the Suffragette, the Flapper and the Screen Siren. The idealized woman of the present -- the archetype of 2010 -- is sadly missing. Could that modern icon be defined by the Reality Star? The Video Queen? The Political Dynamo?

Defining an era

The garments have been pulled from the costume collection that once belonged to the Brooklyn Museum and is now part of the Met. This is the first time that many of these clothes have been exhibited. And while there are dazzling examples of gowns by such renowned names as Paul Poiret, Charles Frederick Worth and Madeleine Vionnet -- European designers who ruled the fashion universe -- there are also those that do not come with a famous label. They are fine examples of the period, but they are not the most rarefied. The result is a sense that these styles defined an era, not merely the wealthiest class of women.

The exception is in the first gallery, which is devoted to the Heiress, a woman of social stature and inherited wealth. While a viewer can marvel at the elegance of her dresses and the sparkle of her jewels, it's impossible to forget that her power was borrowed. She is constrained not just by her corset and her bustle, but also by familial bonds, by social hierarchies and gender roles.

The Gibson Girl of the late 1800s and early 1900s marked the first time that a beauty ideal was not derived from Europe. The women of this era indulged in sports. And while their clothing for swimming or cycling was more cumbersome than what today's women wear in a blizzard, the ideal continues to resonate. When America celebrates the "girl next door," there is an implied athleticism to her look. Her skin is sun-kissed; her hair is streaked with natural highlights. She is a surfer chick. And in the popular imagination, she is white. Still, the Gibson Girl broadened the definition of beauty to at least include a strong, powerful and graceful body.

Grainy newsreels have made the Suffragettes a familiar image. They marched for the vote in their knee-grazing skirts and buttoned-up jackets. Those can't help evoking the conservatively dressed ladies of Capitol Hill today who work to make women's issues everyone's concern. There's a familiar sobriety in their attire, a willful turning away from decoration and flash.

The exhibition moves to the 1920s and the era of the Flapper, one of the few American archetypes with international reach. The Flapper aspired to sexual liberation. She danced, drank and bobbed her hair.

The familiar flapper dresses -- with their dropped waist, unstructured bodice and glittering beadwork -- feel lavish and seductive. They give the impression that there is nothing separating the voyeur's gaze from the Flapper's nude body except a scrim of silk.

Intriguing questions

In its short journey through history, the exhibition raises more questions than it answers. But these are questions worth mulling.

Consider the kind of female body that was celebrated throughout history. Today, so much of the conversation about women and fashion focuses on body size. We discuss weight as though it were the most important aspect of the fashion industry. And many believe that the modern fashion industry is on a mission to demoralize the average, chubby American woman.

But based on this exhibition, the beauty ideal has always been slender. Those athletic Gibson Girls were practically waifs. The Flappers -- at least the ones who naturally fit the clothes and did not have to bind their bosoms so they would be fashionably flat -- were small-boned and almost fragile.

Even the Screen Sirens, celebrated for their womanly curves, are tiny compared to a contemporary actress like Christina Hendricks. In our upset with the present, we have re-imagined a past of buxom beauties that mostly did not exist.

The exhibition concludes with stars such as Rita Hayworth and Lena Horne. How far women had come. While the Heiress of this show's first room relied on inherited money for her standing, these women created their own social stature through their talent and beauty.

Contemporary women receive little attention from Bolton. They're represented in an empty gallery, its walls turned into a giant video screen on which images of famous women are projected, with Lenny Kravitz's "American Woman" as soundtrack.

Until now, there haven't been any recognizable faces in the exhibition. The mannequins have all been faceless, without ethnicity or race. They've been distinguished only by their clothes, hairstyles and posture, and the setting. Now, suddenly, Michelle Obama's image is onscreen, along with those of Tina Turner, Beyonce, Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker and other famous faces.

Viewers are on their own to make sense of the flashing images. Is there a modern archetype in this visual cacophony? And if there isn't, is that a sign of progress or an indication that the bonds that once connected women -- a common political struggle, waves of personal discovery -- have been permanently severed?

Modern archetypes

The opening-night gala for the exhibition -- chaired by Vogue's Anna Wintour, Gap designer Patrick Robinson and media mogul Oprah Winfrey -- gave an opportunity to muse about modern archetypes, as a parade of notable women walked the grand red-carpeted staircase.

The famous were there in droves: Janet Jackson, Demi Moore, Renee Zellweger, Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg and almost every model who has strutted down the runway in recent years. Where was the common thread? What connected Joy Bryant to Kirsten Dunst, except, perhaps, a stylist? Did Rosario Dawson's decision to wear a dress of pink froth have any connection to Zoe Saldana's choice of an almost austere black, one-sleeved gown?

So much of this exhibition focused on women's fight to break free of some social constraint. Now, there are few rules that confine a woman. Katy Perry arrived wrapped in a white strapless gown that lit up like Times Square when she walked. Hendricks wore a dress that revealed so much cleavage, she seemed a walking pin-up. And Goldberg entered the party swathed in duchess satin.

Women can wear whatever they desire. Yet fashion is still a powerful weapon. Only now, instead of waging a political fight or a battle against social mores, women are taking a stand against the constraints of a single beauty ideal.

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